July 21, 2020

The Day of Atonement

Barry Cooper
The Day of Atonement

Only once in the whole year could the high priest of Israel enter the Holy of Holies to approach the fearsome presence of a holy God: the Day of Atonement. Today, Barry Cooper explains what this day revealed about the depth of our guilt and how it pointed forward to a greater day when the sin of God’s people would be dealt with forever.


In my former life as an actor, there was one play whose name many actors refused to say out loud because they thought that to do so would bring bad luck.

They referred to it as “The Scottish Play.” But its actual name (turn the volume down now if you’re a superstitious actor) is Macbeth. It is a terrifying play, but not because of the supposed bad luck it brings, and not because it contains witchcraft and multiple murders, but because it shows that once you are guilty of something, guilt is seemingly impossible to get rid of.

The story is simple enough. Lady Macbeth wants her husband to take the throne, so together they plot to kill the king.

There’s a famous scene where, after the murder of the king, Lady Macbeth sleepwalks. And as she sleepwalks, she rubs her hands together, compulsively, over and over, as if she’s trying to wash them. She sees blood on her hands, and no matter what she does, she cannot get them clean.

Because of course this isn’t literal blood on her hands, it’s a symbol of her guilt: her deep, moral uncleanness before God. Blood you can deal with; you can get that off with soap and water. But not guilt. And she realizes to her horror that nothing she can ever do will ever get rid of it. It’s unreachable by human hand. And she realizes that one day, when she stands before her Creator, there will be a reckoning for what she has done. Even the thought of that Day is so horrific to her that she already feels herself to be in hell.

The question Shakespeare wants us to ask ourselves is this: how do we get ourselves clean of our sin?

Under the old covenant, and you can read about this in Leviticus chapter 16, the answer to that question was—at least in part—the Day of Atonement. Known in Hebrew as Yom Kippur, this was the day on which the high priest of Israel offered a sacrifice of atonement so that the whole of Israel could be made clean of all of its sins.

It was the only time in the year that the high priest could enter the heart of the tabernacle, the Holy of Holies, the place God Himself was said to dwell in all His fearsome holiness, and only briefly could the high priest do that, after the most exacting preparation. It was the place where the ark of the covenant was situated: the wooden chest containing the stone tablets on which was written the very law of God.

Besides the sacrifice of a bull on behalf of the priesthood, two goats were also brought to the tabernacle to deal with the sins of the people. One goat was killed and its blood was sprinkled on top of the ark, on “the mercy seat”—the literal translation is “the place of propitiation.” The place where God’s righteous wrath was appeased. Because the punishment for sin was (and is) death, the goat died as a representative of, a substitute for, the people.

The other goat, after hands were laid on it, was sent out into the wilderness, to represent the fact that the sins of the people had been taken far away—away from them, and away from the Holy God who cannot and will not tolerate sin.

Now of course, this was not the final answer to the problem of uncleanness before God. We know that, because the Day of Atonement was annual. Like the hand washing of Lady Macbeth. It did not and could not stop, because no animal sacrifice and no ritualistic washing was ever going to truly deal with the guilt of human sin. If it were possible to do it that way, then the Day of Atonement—and all the other prescribed washings and sacrifices—would have been necessary only once.

So, what were God’s people to do if animal sacrifices were not enough to wash away their sin?

You know in that sleepwalking scene with Lady Macbeth, her doctor quietly watches from the shadows as she endlessly tries to clean her hands. And he says these words, half to himself, and half to the audience: “More needs she the divine than the physician.”

In other words, no doctor, no therapist, can deal with this guilt. Certainly no animal sacrifice can. And actually, no ordinary human being can atone for sin either. Only the divine God-man can atone for the sins of humanity. Only the Son of God, truly God according to His divine nature and truly and sinlessly human according to His human nature. And that is why Christ came. Christ’s life and death finally atoned for the sins of His people.

The New Testament book of Hebrews explains that what happened on the Day of Atonement was merely a shadow, anticipating a greater “day of atonement,” one that would never have to be repeated.

Jesus, the supreme High Priest, went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle; not the earthly copy, but the heavenly reality. He was able to enter the true Holy of Holies, into heaven itself, opening up the way for us to enter the very presence of God. Not because of the blood of bulls or goats, but because of Jesus’ own blood.

As the old hymn puts it, “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”